The West Virginia Mountaineers enter this weekend fresh off of wins over Kansas and over Baylor. Through those wins, the Mountaineers continue to build their blue-collar identity as a run-heavy defensively-minded unit. Both aspects of the team face challenges going into Lubbock this weekend. We tell you why the Mountaineers face challenges here as we are previewing Texas Tech. Kickoff takes place at 5:30, and ESPN2 will televise the game.
Mountaineers 2020: Previewing Texas Tech
Another Week, Another New Starter
In two of the last three weeks, the Mountaineers prepared for a new starting quarterback. This weekend is no different. Texas Tech Head Coach Matt Wells announced last week that the Red Raiders will start Henry Colombi, who followed Wells from Utah State, against West Virginia. Wells told the media that Colombi really “jump-started the offense” for the last three quarters of Texas Tech’s loss against Kansas State. Once Colombi started going through his progressions, Wells added, the team really responded to his leadership.
Wells and his staff certainly like the dual-threat skillset that Colombi brings to the table. That will present challenges to a Mountaineer defense currently ranked first in the nation in total defense. Colombi can certainly pull the ball down and move the chains with his legs, and his arm seems live as well, throwing only one interception to three touchdowns in 54 passes so far this season.
High Octane Offense
Head Coach Neal Brown told media earlier this week that Texas Tech will be the fastest tempo team that the Mountaineers play all season. With their dual-threat first-time starter, the Red Raiders may even increase the tempo this weekend. On the whole, Texas Tech has led a typically-explosive offense this season. They average 37 points a game and 512 yards per game. Both of these numbers represent the highest averages the Mountaineer defense has faced all season.
According to Brown, Texas Tech features one of the best offensive lines in the Big 12. They’ve only given up a single sack, and they average 170 rushing yards, at five yards per carry, for the season. As a result, the numbers definitely support Brown’s comment.
The Red Raiders’ skill positions feature several big-play threats. SaRodorick Thompson averages just over five yards per carry on 50 carries, with a long run of 75 yards. His primary backup, Xavier White, averages an efficient seven-and-a-half yards per carry but with far fewer carries (15). On the receiver front, Erik Ezukanma leads Texas Tech in yards per reception (14.6) and receiving yards (234). And KeSean Carter leads the Red Raiders in touchdown receptions (four) and receptions (21).
The Red Raiders’ defense, on the other hand, remains a liability to the team. Texas Tech has a serviceable line that puts modest pressure on opposing quarterbacks. The team collected six sacks in four games as a result. The line definitely caused the Mountaineers fits last season.
That line, however, has not helped the defensive totals. Texas Tech surrenders an average of 42 points and 493 yards per game. Opposing teams have a harder time rushing (147 yards, and just under four yards per carry) than passing (357 yards and a whopping nine yards per pass attempt) against them. The defense has also struggled to create takeaways, netting only three so far this season.
Previewing Texas Tech: Keys to the Game
Texas Tech plays a relatively disciplined brand of football early this season. The Red Raiders have been called for 23 penalties for 195 yards (averaging six penalties for 50 yards). West Virginia, on the other hand, averages eight penalties for 73 yards. The timing of those penalties matters, too. Last week, the Mountaineers lost the field position battle, often because of special teams penalties. West Virginia has also stalled several promising drives because of procedural penalties (though improving against Kansas). Finally, the Mountaineers have extended opponents’ drives several times with selfish penalties on third down.
With an explosive offense like Texas Tech, penalties that give the ball back to the Red Raiders and penalties that would keep the Texas Tech offense on the field tempt fate in big ways. West Virginia simply cannot afford to pile up 75 yards of penalties here.
Catching the Ball
We will explore this more in-depth in a later article, but, put simply, the Mountaineer receivers have missed very catchable passes far too often this season. Whatever fans think of Jarret Doege, we can print this without reservation: if the receivers hang on to just half of their drops so far this season, Doege’s stat line looks much better. How much better? Well, that depends. What would you think of a quarterback who completes 75% of his passes, throws for 240 yards per game, and has seven touchdowns to two interceptions through four games?
Brown told the media earlier this week that his team needs to “catch the football” and “continue to hit explosive plays” against the Red Raiders. Dropping fewer passes, especially on those passes where the wideouts have an open field in front of them, would certainly add to the explosive play potential. Also, doing so against a porous Texas Tech defense could definitely build momentum for the unit.
As Brown said multiple times, he recognizes that the defense is “playing at a high level.” They are showing physicality, effort, and energy. Although, he also says they need to keep doing so. Texas Tech poses the stiffest challenge yet to this unit. Getting pressure on the Red Raiders early and often will prove vital–and challenging. As noted above, Texas Tech has only yielded one sack through four games. Thus, the Mountaineers must work had to meet their season average of three sacks a game. If they can do so, they have a great chance of disrupting Colombi and limiting the explosive potential of the Red Raiders.
Maintaining the Run
Perhaps the biggest early-season surprise for West Virginia has been the stellar play of Leddie Brown. While Coach Brown continues to urge caution–“we have not arrived yet” is a common refrain–a unit that averaged about 70 yards per game last season has more than doubled its output through four games. Brown’s 515 yards account for 70% of the team’s totals. He’s also averaging over six yards per attempt. Brown totals seven touchdowns on the season (five on the ground). Maintaining that level of play is a must, as West Virginia seeks to maintain control of the clock to the biggest extent possible.
Previewing Texas Tech: Prediction
No doubt that Texas Tech’s offensive averages look pretty good. The Red Raiders average three more points per game than Baylor (34) and over 100 more yards per game than Oklahoma State (406). On the whole, they represent the most potent offense West Virginia has faced by a fair margin.
That said, the Red Raiders’ numbers seem skewed by their game against Texas. In that game, Texas Tech scored 56 points. In their two games since Texas Tech averaged only 18 points. Granted, the Red Raiders played Kansas State and Iowa State, perennially two top defenses in the Big 12. But in the early going, West Virginia’s defense eclipses both of those units by a significant margin.
In total, the Mountaineers’ defense surrenders only 15 points per game (West Virginia’s offense gave up seven points against Oklahoma State, and the backup special teams unit gave up seven against Kansas). Even though Texas Tech features a better offense than the Cowboys or Bears, the margin isn’t that significant to think that these numbers are simply a fluke. Barring significant injury, in fact, we expect the Mountaineers to play just as fiercely as they have to date. We also think the offense can take advantage of their most porous opposing defense to date (at least in conference play). As a result, we predict a 38-20 win by West Virginia in Lubbock.